Emperor Julian of the Roman Empire grunted in agony. You would, too, if a spear had just been shoved into your guts. It was on this day, June 27, 363.* Julian was at war with the Persians. But after just two years of rule he was finished. He was only 32 years old.
As he bled, the dying emperor groaned, "You have conquered, O Galilean"--referring to Jesus Christ. At least that is what later reports said. Early rumors suggested that a Christian had assassinated the emperor. The Christians probably didn't, but they had reason to. Julian had struggled to end the power of Christians in the Roman Empire. Since the day fifty years earlier when Constantine won a key victory in the sign of the chi-rho, Christian influence had steadily grown.
Julian's zeal against the Christians surprised some because he had been brought up as a Christian, baptized, and even ordained a reader (lector) in the church. This rejection of his upbringing led Christians to call him "Julian the Apostate." (An apostate is one who falls away from faith.) What caused Julian to change sides?
A gifted writer himself, Julian fell in love with Hellenic civilization. He also fell under the spell of Maximus of Ephesus who used magic tricks to get a hold on the young man's mind.
Another reason that may have influenced Julian was that a "Christian" emperor killed off all of his family for political reasons. Although Julian owed his life to another Christian, he seems to have blamed all Christians for the massacre.
At any rate, with strong support from the more educated classes, Julian determined to restore the traditional pagan religions to supremacy. He ordered old temples rebuilt and new ones started. He developed a pagan priesthood.
Because Christians were loud in their disapproval of Julian's actions (some even resorted to violence), he went even further in his rejection of Christianity, removing Christian teachers who did not accept the legends taught in the pages of pagan authors. In another move apparently meant to harm the Christians, he sided with their Jewish antagonists, ordering the rebuilding of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. The project was defeated by an earthquake.
Julian studied several pagan religions and considered them the true heritage of the empire. But, taking a page from Christians, he urged the pagans to show more care and compassion for the poor and needy, noting that the Christians cared not only for their own poor but for the pagans as well. This had given the Christians a strong moral advantage among their pagan neighbors.
At reports of Julian's miserable end, Christians claimed that God had judged him. But pagans must have regretted the loss which meant the abrupt end of their perks and plans.
*Historians disagree on this date. Will Durant, Christian History, and other sources give the 27th, but Encyclopedia Britannica and the Catholic Encyclopedia give the 26th.
- Aland, Kurt. Saints and Sinners; men and ideas in the early church. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970.
- Chadwick, Henry. The Early Church. Penguin Books, 1967.
- Durant, Will. The Age of Faith. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1950.
- Hoeber, Karl. "Julian the Apostate." The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton, 1914.
- "Julian the Apostate." The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Edited by F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone. Oxford, 1997.
- Various internet and encyclopedia articles and Histories of Christianity.
Last updated May, 2007.